In early December Michigan Republicans appear to have stepped into the political fight of their lives. Right after the 2012 elections ended Republicans began to make noise about passing right to work legislation. Republicans, despite the loss of their Senate and Presidential nominees, were heartened by the fact that a strong union effort to get CBA rights enshrined in Michigan’s Constitution failed overwhelmingly. To many Republicans this seemed to signal the state was ready for right to work legislation.
But is Michigan ready for right to work legislation? Furthermore, are Republicans willing to take the heat from the action come 2014? There is substantial evidence Republicans are willing to take the heat but little evidence on the former. If Wisconsin, Ohio or Indiana prove anything to the GOP it is that unions will fight back and fight back hard and the public is fickle in its views.
At last count Michigan is the 5th most heavily unionized state in the nation with 17.5% of its workforce unionized. Michigan, like Wisconsin, is home to the heart of the industrial union base. However, in recent years union power in the state has waned as Republicans swept statewide executive offices in 2010 and took control of both chambers of the legislature. Even before 2010 former Governor Jennifer Granholm (D) was urging unions to work with local and municipal governments to reform their pension and benefit plans.
In the recent 2012 election unions across the country scored numerous wins. In Indiana which recently became a right to work state and reformed its education system the Superintendent of Education lost. In Michigan and Ohio President Obama and Democratic Senate incumbents won. In Wisconsin unions helped elect Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D) to the Senate (though the state Senate flipped to the GOP).
But despite unions bragging about their victories in 2010 Republicans seem more willing than ever to take them on. In Michigan, where Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama by almost 10 points, Republicans lost a mere four seats in the state House which left them with a solid majority. In Ohio the GOP held onto both chambers of the Legislature.
Enter the GOP controlled Michigan legislature. Since 2011 the legislature had been making noise about making Michigan a right to work state. However, Governor Rick Snyder (R) was always non-committal about the idea and the major debates Wisconsin and Ohio seemed to suck the enthusiasm for passing such a law out of the legislature. But after Republicans held the legislature enthusiasm was renewed. Governor Rick Snyder has also had a change of heart and said he would sign such legislation when (not if) it reached his desk.
Unions have vowed to make Republicans lives (just as in WI) miserable and they got a head start on that Thursday and Friday. As the GOP controlled legislature was passing right to work legislation before the weekend unions and political activists swarmed the state capitol building. Not surprisingly, this had little impact on the legislature’s actions.
Taking a page from Wisconsin’s book the Michigan right to work legislation exempts firefighters and police unions. In the Midwest these unions tend to lean or at least consider supporting Republicans for office. In 2010 they threw their support and money behind Walker, Snyder and Kasich then worked to defeat Kasich’s CBA reform in 2011 when it did not exempt them. This likely means Republicans will not face unified union opposition but the opposition will be fierce none the less.
In Wisconsin conservatives, libertarians and Republicans had a charismatic standard-bearer in Scott Walker to rally behind. In Michigan Snyder is hardly a Scott Walker. He is a policy wonk and a geek at heart. He is nothing to look at but behind his eyes is the mind of a brilliant and pragmatic businessman. His late conversion to supporting the idea also means he has not been advocating the idea since elected like Walker and Kasich (though Kasich’s idea fell flat) have.
Still, the idea in itself can unify support. The union opposition is stiff and they likely saw something like this coming. Unions spent north of a billion dollars in the last few years fighting CBA reform and right to work legislation in numerous states. There is no sign they will not spend more to defend themselves, especially in a state such as Michigan. Michigan Republicans opted to take this fight head on, gambling the public is with them. Time will tell whether they were right or not.